Realism: The portrait of the worker in Portuguese art

Realismo: O retrato do trabalhador na arte portuguesa

Labor Day
Labor Day is this Saturday, May 1st. The date symbolizes the joint effort of workers to reduce working hours and improve working conditions. Over the centuries, the pictorial representation of the working class as a main theme has rarely been seen in the visual arts. However, between the 19th and 20th centuries, due to political and social circumstances, this theme became the focus of several artists.
The emergence of neo-realism, with artists such as Júlio Pomar, created a real representation of the social and precarious conditions of the proletariat at that time. In order to celebrate this special date, we will analyze the emergence of the neo-realism movement in Portugal and the impact of the artist's works Júlio Pomar in Portuguese society.

The Portrait of the Art Worker | P55 Magazine | P55 - The platform of ArtAround the market by António da Silva Porto, 1986

Realism and neorealism
In the 19th and 20th centuries, with the realism and neo-realism artistic movements, there was an explosion in the pictorial representation of the working class. In realism we see represented, fundamentally, the ways of life of working in the field and the concerns of the bourgeoisie.
In the 1940s, due to the international political and ideological situation generated by the end of the war and the expectations of the Communist Party, a frame of reference was formed for some young painters at the beginning of their careers. The neo-realism artistic movement thus emerged, which resumes the aesthetic and social attitude of 19th century realism, simultaneously demonstrating the new concerns of the 20th century.

The Portrait of the Art Worker | P55 Magazine | P55 - The platform of Art

Mower in Júlio Pomar, 1945

Neo-realism in Portugal
Neo-realism is a movement present in various fields such as visual arts, literature, cinema and theater. Due to the Marxist theories of historical and dialectical materialism disseminated in Portuguese political and intellectual circles, around the 1930s, this cultural movement began to develop in literature. An example of this is the publication of periodicals such as The Devil, Rising Sun, Seara Nova and the magazine Vertex
In the visual arts, neo-realism flourished in the first months of 1945 and at the end of 1947, mainly with the appearance of a new generation of artists with ideological lines converging with the Estado Novo, who committed themselves to social intervention through art. The new political conditions gave this new generation the opportunity to demonstrate their work in collective salons and in the press. Throughout 1945 the supplement “Arte” was published; Between 1946 and 1956, the “General Exhibitions of Fine Arts” were produced.
This new movement follows the lines of realism, but abandons the representation of the bourgeoisie, defending a “useful art” that focuses intensely on social problems and the lives of workers. Between form and content, the themes of the proletariat and its economic condition acquired mystical and ritualized valorization, through a dramatic contrast between light and dark, accentuating the suffering of faces, feet and hands. These paintings became icons of the desire to fight against social exploitation.

The Portrait of the Art Worker | P55 Magazine | P55 - The platform of ArtMarch in Júlio Pomar, 1946

The case of Júlio Pomar in Portuguese neo-realism
One of the artists who stands out in this movement is Júlio Pomar, with the first years of artistic production entirely linked to the affirmation of neo-realism. The artist was born in Lisbon, in the year of the military coup that imposed the dictatorship (1926) and was introduced to the artistic world as a child by a family friend who was a sculptor. He studied at the Lisbon School of Fine Arts for two years, but in 1944 he transferred to the Porto School of Fine Arts. He prematurely assumed his opposition to the current regime, collaborating with communist youth from 1945 onwards.

The Portrait of the Art Worker | P55 Magazine | P55 - The platform of ArtTrolha's Lunch in Júlio Pomar, 1946-1950

Júlio Pomar marked the neo-realist movement in Portugal with the painting Trolha's Lunch, portraying the socially precarious condition of that time. This work, reproduced in several newspapers, presents the meal of three figures: the trolha, the woman and the son. In a game between light and dark, color is dramatically felt, describing this theme in a harsh way. The anatomy of the worker's feet and hands are accentuated, as they are the means of work, survival and struggle. Involving the figures, the painter represents the objects of this trowel's hard work in order to contextualize the space's viewer.
This work is distinguished by the geometric composition, which extends to the construction of figures and expressive deformation. With a strong and textural composition, it also registers a certain expressionist and post-cubist adaptation, evident in the organization of space and the figure-background relationship.
Other works such as Mower (1945), March (1946) or Resistance (1947) transform anonymous figures from the working world into heroes in an extraordinary and intensely poetic way. The bodies, deformed and with an almost sculptural dimension, threaten to advance towards the viewer for an ethical reckoning. Completely filling the canvas, the symbolic values of the gesture of work, struggle and superhuman strength are reinforced through color. For Portuguese history, the paintings of Júlio Pomar of this period are fundamental for their pictorial dynamism and for having fueled the hope of a progressive transformation in society, subsequently stimulating the fall of the fascist dictatorship.

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